PHILADELPHIA -- Steve Colby's eyes gleamed as he strode through Citizens Bank Park's concourse on Monday night. In his hand, Colby clutched a glossy photo bearing the signature of Phillies second baseman Chase Utley. "How friendly he was," Colby, of Mount Laurel, N.J., gushed. Colby was one of about 6,000 Phillies fans who streamed through the ballpark on Monday night for the annual Phillies Phestival, an autograph party and auction created in the 1980s to strike out ALS, or "Lou Gehrig's disease." The event, now in its 19th year, raised a record-setting $758,540.
Colby's photo was a shot of Utley exchanging a high-five with first baseman Ryan Howard at home plate. Now that Colby had Utley's John Hancock, his mission was to obtain Howard's, who was holding court at another booth about 70 yards down the concourse, as well. "I have Ryan Howard on my fantasy team," Colby explained. He eagerly tapped one of his friends on the shoulder. "I'm gonna go get Ryan Howard," Colby told the friend. "You coming?" The Phillies adopted ALS as their primary charity in 1984. Each year thereafter, they have worked with the Greater Philadelphia Chapter of the ALS Association to hold events that raise money and awareness on behalf of fighting ALS, which stands for "amyotrophic lateral sclerosis." In 1984, the team held a fashion show where players and their wives would model the latest trends, team president David Montgomery recalled. It was the first of five fashion shows that the team held before holding the first autograph party in 1989. In the process, the event went from "a couple hundred people," according to Montgomery, to drawing thousands. Thirteen autograph stations around the stadium's concourse drew throngs of fans holding baseballs, pictures and posters waiting to meet their favorite players. Bryan Dissinger, a fan from Ephrata, Pa., waited in line to meet Phillies outfielder So Taguchi. "I like the Japanese players -- their style," Dissinger said, proudly holding up a baseball signed in Japanese by Taguchi with blue ink. ALS is also named after Gehrig, the legendary Yankees first baseman who played from 1923-39. He died of the disease in 1941. Patients suffering from ALS gradually lose their ability to control muscle movement, as motor neurons that reach from the brain to the spinal cord die, according to the ALS Association's Web site. Total paralysis may result in the later stages of the disease. The money raised by the Phillies has been crucial in helping the Greater Philadelphia Chapter of the ALS Association support the ALS Clinic at Pennsylvania Hospital. The clinic is multidisciplinary, meaning that patients can be seen there by physical therapists, neurologists, speech therapists and nutritionists, among many other specialists. The Greater Philadelphia Chapter also supports ALS research at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital and Hahnemann University Hospital. "When we first started, what caught our attention initially was the fact that detection of this disease is so difficult," Montgomery said. "People would be enduring these symptoms and they would go from doctor to doctor." Thirty patients with ALS attended Monday's Phestival, and had the chance to meet with Phillies players and team officials before the event. That was the best part of Monday night for Ellyn Phillips, president of the Greater Philadelphia Chapter of the ALS Association. She has seen the event grow from the 1984 fashion show -- which, she recalled, raised about $4,500 -- to Monday's event, which is expected to put the Phillies over the mark of having raised $10 million for ALS. "I never cease to be amazed by how this grows," Phillips said. "I get goose bumps every time I come here and see all these people and realize that all these dollars are being raised for ALS. It's an extraordinary feeling."
Kevin Horan is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.